Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews

Banjo Stage
Saturday, Oct. 1
By Tim Simmers and Mark Hedin

October's customary Indian summer in San Francisco was nowhere in evidence Saturday morning as Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek kicked things off at the Banjo Stage, highlighting the playing of two-time IBMA fiddler of the year Michael Cleveland in a set heavy on gospel tunes that closed with a cover of the '70s Stealers Wheel pop hit, "Stuck in the Middle With You."

Next up was Alison Brown, who, with her jazzy approach on banjo and guitar, occupies a unique niche in the bluegrass world. Introduced as "Warren (Hellman)'s inspiration to take up the banjo," the blond Southern California native led her five-piece band in two instrumentals to begin her set.

"We're happy to be here in the San Francisco fog," she said, followed by a few words about how she "left my job as an investment banker and hooked up with Alison Kraus to live the bluegrass dream" before picking up a guitar and charging into "Deep Gap," an instrumental inspired by Doc Watson, and "My Favorite Marsha," a tribute to astronaut Marsha Ivins, who chose some of Brown's recordings as wake-up music on the Mir space station.

Brown's florid playing and the melody of the song, said an impressed Katy Hardwick, who'd never encountered Brown's playing before, "reminded me of the Allman Brothers' 'Little Martha.'"

Brown stretched out her jazzy influences with "Django Latino" and "Hungariana" while giving the rest of her quartet - piano, electric bass, and drums, with special guest fiddler Joe Craven looking out from under a sombrero - plenty of room to show off their chops.

The band wrapped up its set with two songs from their new album, Stolen Moments. "The Pirate Queen" and "MacIntyre Heads South" are both steeped in Irish culture, the first about County Mayo's Grace O'Malley of Elizabethan times; the latter, Brown said, about 14 Irish monks on a seven-year, sixth-century voyage in a leather boat from Galway to Newfoundland.

Bluegrass legend Del McCoury took the stage to begin a run of three sets by some of the finest, best-established pickers of the genre over the past several decades.

With sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, the group, attired in natty suits, clustered around a single microphone to harmonize before stepping out to take virtuoso solos on their respective instruments.

They played a request from a previous gig, as is often their wont, "Body and Soul," followed by "Nashville Cats" and "Cotton-Eyed Joe" before Del McCoury introduced bassist Alan Bartram to sing the Hank Williams classic, "You Win Again."

The highlight of the set, though, might have been the stunning cover of Richard Thompson's ode to an outlaw, his red-haired sweetheart and his motorcycle, "'52 Vincent."

McCoury's been doing the song for years now, but it nonetheless wins him some new converts every time.

From there it was a steady downhill hot-picking roll toward the appearances of Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, through "The Company We Keep," "Logging Man," "Get Down on Your Knees and Pray," with its four-part harmonies, "She Can't Hurt Me Now," "All Aboard" and "Rawhide."

When Watson, who followed, takes you on a musical journey with his amazing flat-picking guitar, you might feel like you just arrived in his backyard for a barbecue.

Accompanied by David Holt on a shiny National steel guitar, the bluegrass legend acknowledged as much himself: "I'm as informal up here as if you were in my backyard," Watson told the crowd.

Known for being one of the first to play old fiddle tunes on guitar, the gentle blind man from the Appalachian Mountains is a humble genius with his instrument, and he hasn't lost a lick at 82.

He picked with pure emotion and ringing clarity on the likes of old-timey favorites like "Shady Grove" and "The Train that Carried My Girl from Town." "He's one of the smoothest guitarists I've ever heard," said Bruce Gold, a Nashville native who just moved to San Francisco. "He sets the standard for traditional bluegrass mountain music."

Doc's not afraid to play blues either, as he and Holt demonstrated after Holt had told the crowd how the two of them share a "terrible" circumstance, the loss of a child. Holt lost a daughter and Doc's son, Merle, died in a mid-'80s tractor accident.

Later in the set they were joined by Doc's grandson Richard Eddy Watson, Merle's son, on guitar.

A down-home version of "Sittin' on Top of the World" featured more haunting slide guitar by Holt.

Watson also did a sleepy, country-style rendition of the classic "Milk Cow Blues" and a spirited version of Mississippi John Hurt's "Got the Blues, Can't be Satisfied."

At one point, Doc sang and picked the classic "Summertime," and the sky actually got brighter and the sun threatened to break through the gray clouds.

Earl Scruggs' rolling banjo riffs demand plenty of reverence and respect, and they're also damn sweet to hear. The 81-year-old Scruggs' three-finger "Scruggs style picking" has come to be almost synonymous with bluegrass banjo playing. With his son Gary Scruggs on electric bass, his grandson on acoustic guitar and a stellar band with a hot electric guitar, Scruggs was like pure royalty with a hayseed attitude.

Dressed in a black suit, blue shirt and tie, he bridged the gaps between folk, gospel, bluegrass, blues and rock. His show was down-home as well as wide-ranging, with a good measure of sparkling traditional bluegrass in rollicking versions of "Salty Dog" and "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms," a Carter family tribute called "You are my Flower," with Scruggs on guitar, and a moaning, high lonesome rendition of the Bill Monroe classic "In the Pines." Then he served up a mellow crossover of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere," lending his voice to the chorus.

The country music Hall of Famer couldn't let the crowd go without playing the "Ballad of Jed Clampett," the soundtrack for the '60s TV sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies,"-the first bluegrass single to top the country charts. He followed that with a smoking "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," his tune that became the hit theme of the 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde." Earl Scruggs couldn't help but smile through those two tunes, and neither could the crowd.

Texas troubadour Steve Earle may be the closest thing we have to Woodie Guthrie these days. With a hard strum of the guitar, a little blue-collar hillbilly twang and an emotional ode to another working man, he's one natural storyteller.

Hellman introduced Earle, referring to himself as "one of Steve's biggest fans," before Earle launched into some bone-chilling songs with his signature nasal drawl and cutting lyrics. He mixed up some old-timey tearjerkers and raucous country into a passionate stew, sometimes seeming he might stomp his foot right through the stage. His world-class band, the Bluegrass Dukes, added plenty of stunning rhythm and melodies on the mandolin, fiddle and banjo.

Earle eased into the set with backwoods, mountain tones. You could almost smell the dirt and feel the honesty when he let sling with his union ode "Harlan Man." Much to the delight of the crowd, Earle's politics came into play soon and remained a theme throughout the gritty, emotional set.

He sent "Rich Man's War" out to Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who's become a flashpoint in the anti-war movement, drawing lusty yelps and yahoos from the crowd hanging on his hard-hitting lyrics. "He pulls no punches, tellin' it like it is about war and big business, and plays with a lot of soul," said John Betts of Palo Alto. Later Earle told the crowd, "we have a mainstream movement against the war now, and I just wanted to thank places like (San Francisco) that have been there since day one."

Songwriter Earle delivers his lyrics like a plainspoken country boy. "I come here every year to sing this song," he drawled, plowing into the late Lowell George's trucker song "Willing," with the chorus "Just give me weed, whites and wine, and show me a sign, and I'll be willing." Always eclectic, Earle said he thought his next tune "was more what Paul McCartney had in mind" as he played a jangly guitar on the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You," with lots of harmony from the Dukes.

All in all, it was a very satisfied crowd that made its way back into the city after a full day of witnessing the legends of the past, stars of the present and pioneers of the future on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Banjo Stage.

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